On female power in protest with Malika Virah-Sawmy from Extinction Rebellion

The revolution continues: Extinction Rebellion is back with yet another rebellion wave, lasting until 10th of October. As climate protests accumulate up to seventy per cent of female protestors, we met 41-year old scientist and activist Malika Virah-Sawmy from XR to talk about femininity and women in environmental protection.

Malika’s scientific knowledge on female leadership is captivating and even though her way of speaking is calm and welcoming, she is determined in her goals. Her interest in environmental conservation started more than 20 years back in Mauritius, where she is from. Since then, she got into the topic scientifically and thus holds a PhD on human and nature conflicts from Oxford. Working for big players like UN and WWF, she thought their approaches were lacking and hence she joined XR, for a different kind of environmental advocacy. Today, she is an activist, mother and proponent of female leadership – believing in Greta Thunberg as an atypical Heroine.

Do we need heroines more than heroes?

I am a little scared of a hero- or heroine-culture. Yet I love what Greta has done for the world: it is inspiring thatshe does not act the classical heroine way. She does not say or act like that she knows better but rather that she doesn’t know at all. The more I think about it, the more I find that it is really important that she is a woman. The most hatred she gets is by men. The more there is, the more it means she has done something to shake them up. A young boy would maybe not have been as effective. Though I am just speculating.

Is it her being female, as well as young that she shakes up so many people? Or is it also because she is openly angry?

Is it about her as a girl being angry or her as a girl speaking her truth? I think that mixture of being a girl that is angry and speaking  her truth, a truth that was mostly spoken of in unemotional ways before, for example by scientists, has really shaken many people and opened new avenues of expressions about climate change. 

What is the difference between feminine and masculine leadership?

You know the Yin and Yang, right? We need a little bit of both: the energy, fire, passion of Yang. All the action and request for mitigation comes from the energy of Yang. But we also need to look at the other needs in activism: how do have compassion for those who do not want to change the system? How do we have compassion for us as a species to sustain long term change? It is so challenging as humans to focus on long term future rather than immediate near term. The Yin-side is more female, indigenous and earth associated: it brings compassion, collectiveness, building trust and intuition to sustain long-term change.

So you use “feminine” to subsume certain societal connotations ascriptions under this term? It’s not a fixed thing?

Exactly. We can also replace the word “feminine”: I tend to think there are three types of intelligences. The intelligence quotient. But there also is the emotional intelligence and the third is the awareness intelligence: that is sensing what is emerging from the situation or collective group. When I talk about feminine, earth and indigenous practices, they are tapping into the latter two, they are in a similar vein.

And your research focuses on how to implement those techniques into activism?

Last year I read and heard a lot about the prognoses from deep adaptation that what if it is already too late to slow climate change down. Sustainability professionals do often not focus on this probability enough. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t mitigate in the way XR is asking society to commit. But I think we also just need to emotionally accept this possibility. There are parallels to sicknesses: when you have a probable lethal sickness, emotionally accepting death as a possibility makes you stronger than only saying: I fight it and will try to survive. If you start to accept death as a part of life, your sense of happiness already shifts.

Interesting. This is an internal thing, though, right? I feel like for not addressing the probable outcomes of climate change sufficiently has many external reasons. Such as economic advantages that do not take place on an emotional level, such as fighting a sickness personally.

Certainly. There are many reasons to not openly speak about what may or will happen. Because climate change brings out a lot of fear concerning our inability to let go of economic privileges if you are privileged, our inability to work on long-term threats rather than immediate, our inability to include emotions such as grief as part of this dialogue. These inabilities is what I call our human biases.

What’s the greatest human bias?

One of them, in the context of climate change, is stress-induced uncertainty. Research shows that apparently we are more stressed not knowing when something bad is going to happen than knowing something bad is going to happen for sure.. I think the uncertainties of climate change are bringing about a lot of existential crisis about the human condition forcing us to work with our human biases. Those biases, we need to find ways to embrace and work with them more intelligently, which means not only rationally.

So what would we need to do?

I find the German motto, zusammen gegen Corona, very emotionally intelligent. In the context of climate change, it would be accepting we need to work in an emotionally intelligent and together way on our fears associated with climate change. Emotional and collective intelligence will help us with this.

How do you deal with this knowledge personally?

Reflecting on this really shifted me. In my children’s further lives there might be collapses. Maybe not in my society, but in others we see those already. And with our human biases, we will keep on saying: this is not our personal problem. If we react to our fears and instincts, more protectionism, polarising will follow. Stepping away from our human fears and instinct in relation to climate change in a first step.

So what do you do practically?

First of all, I decided to move my children more into nature. Because I think that whatever will happen, nature is always the greatest support. Second has been to prepare myself emotionally to live in times of great uncertainty and great unfairness and this means developing even more love to the human condition. 

Do you teach your children fear? How?

Reacting to fear and panic are things that will not help us. Accepting fear and panic in us on the other hand is totally ok. The key is to understand this difference. I try to teach my children this difference.

What we fear overall is the fear of death. In many indigenous cultures, where there is a more circular understanding of life, rather than linear, death is not as feared, as it is a necessary part. I am myself in the process of learning to accept death and grieving. 

Are you scared at all?

I am. When speaking of the climate crisis, I am scared of what people will turn into when they are fearing death. Hoarding, ignorance and all those things we were able to see a little during corona, will be amplified during climate change catastrophes. The us-versus-others-narratives will grow more present.

Is there space for all the emotions in environmental movements? For anger, sadness, fear?

Emotions towards a topic show us that it is important to us. I can only speak for myself really, but it is indeed common to tell young children and women to supress their emotions instead of honouring them. Emotions tell what my body feels. We need to listen to this, as it is a form of protecting ourselves. The mistake we make is to react to emotions rather than honour them and work with them wisely.

With all this in mind, how do you deal with your own set of emotions? You sound really optimistic and yet realistic. How did you reach being so in touch with all your three sets of intelligences and how can I and we reach it, too?

I think it’s a matter of practicing. Deep listening to myself and to others and to nature. I did not have an upbringing teaching me this. Even though coming from Mauritius, from an Indian background, my upbringing was really Western. I came to realise that this way of life is not working when I had a breakdown. During this breakdown, I learned to fully accept the pain of the human condition. A shift happens when you accept the human condition. Now I am able to bring different leaderships that embraces the human condition and work with human emotions intelligently in organisations such as the UN.

What would you say to young women who are scared to join protests because of the disconnect of their emotions and expected behaviour from society?

You know, Inever was an activist until I got to know XR. I realised it was because most activism is against something. There is a lot of rage and anger. Activism is rarely for something. But with XR, they are explicitly working on both. The love and the rage. And that really inspired me. So I would encourage woman to be clearer what they are against and what they are for and find protest movement that are in line with both.

Fotos: Sebastian Höhn & Bastian Greshake Tzovaras, Callum Shaw, saw2th & Falco Masi on Unsplash/ Flickr

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Andere Meinungen

  1. […] die weniger betroffen sind, werden versuchen, diese von sich fernzuhalten.“ Die Klimabewegung macht Malika Hoffnung. Sie betrachtet sich als eine der Älteren bei Extinction Rebellion, die die Jüngeren […]

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